Helen Kirk has been described as ‘an indefatigable and tenacious environmental campaigner and amateur naturalist’. For more than 30 years she has championed and helped safeguard the Humberhead peatlands, and the special plants and creatures that depend on them. She is the executive secretary of the Thorne and Hatfield Moors Conservation Forum and has recently been awarded the British Empire Medal for services to conservation.
Back in July 2012, it was discovered that someone had bulldozed a floodbank protecting a piece of SSSI on Thorne Moors (a Natura 2000 site). This resulted in large amounts of nutrient-enriched water pouring from a potato crop into an area of pristine fen which holds a water beetle so rare, it only occurs in one other area in Britain. Allegedly, this damage was undertaken by the lawful agent of a neighbouring landowner, who is also a local Internal Drainage Board Member.
The incident was reported to NE site staff immediately and to the local Internal Drainage Board (IDB) as well as the Rural Payments Agency (RPA) in October. The structural damage to a watercourse embankment was eventually ‘repaired’ in November. The impact on the water quality in the SSSI is unknown and no-one seems to care.
Thorne Moors SSSI is an internationally recognised site particularly important for its rare insects but also for other plants and animals as well as habitat type. It is a Special Protection Area for its breeding nightjar.
Eventually the RPA in a letter in December 2012 offered that a breach of cross-compliance may have occurred, but they would need proof that the actions directly affected the special features of the SSSI.
They went on to say that before they could reduce a payment for breach of compliance, they would need to undertake an inspection to verify things. Yet despite sending evidence, no inspector arrived, and no action was taken against the perpetrator. Watch this space for updates ….
Despite copious correspondence, none of Natural England, the RPA or the local IDB appears to be prepared to monitor the impact of thousands of gallons of agricultural run-off over a period of around five months. This discharge is rich in nitrates and phosphates and is likely to alter the water quality of this ecologically sensitive piece of pristine fen on Thorne Moors SSSI. A recent water beetle survey of Thorne Moors noted about the area damaged that it ‘…is clearly one of the most important water beetle habitats on the Peatlands, with a fauna dominated by scarce and localised species’. One of these rare water beetles is Agabus striolatus, which occurs in just one other area of England.
It seems that the view of these public funded agencies is that the body of proof of impact lies with others to establish not the individuals who caused the damage. The site is caught in a Catch-22: enforcement is unlikely because there is no finance to establish damage to sensitive populations and that unless a case is water tight then NE staff are not able to recommend enforcement or prosecution.
So the 1997 WWF (UK) Report “Muzzled Watchdog” has now become a candidate for a re-write as “Toothless Terrier” and the RPA a contender as the agri-industrialists’ “Lapdog”? It seems incredible that millions are handed to agri-industrialists to encourage them to adopt good environmental practice and yet there is no-one overseeing value for public funds. In 2008 the UK received €3,755 Million in EU farm subsidies.
Many of those same landowners are Board Members on IDBs who receive special levies from the Local Authority to ensure farmers’ land is drained, and under the provisions of The Land Drainage Act 1994 (which amended the LDA of 1991) duties were imposed in respect to the environment. The relevant wording (1994 amendment of 1991 Act, Sect.61): It shall be the duty of an Internal Drainage Board …. to further the conservation of flora, fauna and geological or physiographical features of special interest.
The local drainage board whose area it lies within and whose landowner is a member of was contacted. Once they had established that they had not ‘consented’ the action, they effectively washed their hands of the matter. The IDB meeting held shortly after a complaint had been submitted summarily dismissed the matter and the landowner declared that the matter was ‘not the board’s business and that it was between him and Natural England’.
One might be forgiven for thinking there’s little wonder that 62% of SSSIs remain in ‘unfavourable condition’ (using NE’s December figures for England) if this is the best that Defra agencies can do.
Thorne Moors SSSI has recently been awarded substantial funding through Defra to deliver a Water Level Management Plan through the IDBs, but what hope is there when some of their members demonstrate such contempt for SSSI status?
To my mind such actions raise a number of issues, amongst them:
- The existence of public funded agencies ‘fit for purpose’ with systems which demonstrate compliance with the Wildlife & Countryside Act and the Habitats Regulations.
- The ability of Defra agencies to act in a timely manner, to investigate incidents and to be able to ensure monitoring establishes impact and to recover public funds where damage and impact is proven.
- The accountability of agri-industrialist landowners who sit on publicly funded IDBs.
- A system which ensures that public money is not paid to landowners who damage SSSIs/Natura 2000 sites.
Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?